German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Sunday asked Poland to forgive his country for its role in World War II.
“In no other square in Europe do I find it more difficult to speak, and to address you in my native language of German,” Steinmeier said at a ceremony in Pilsudski Square in Warsaw, The Guardian reported. “I ask for forgiveness for Germany’s historical guilt, and I recognize our enduring responsibility.”
Steinmeier joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders for events marking the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, which began when the Nazis attacked Poland.
Nearly 6 million Poles were among the 50 million people who died in World War II, the deadliest conflict in human history.
Vice President Mike Pence attended the events in President Donald Trump’s stead. Trump announced Thursday that he was canceling his trip to Poland so he could be in the U.S. to monitor Hurricane Dorian’s expected landfall. He spent several hours at his golf resort in Virginia on Saturday before flying to Camp David, then attended a Federal Emergency Management Agency briefing on Sunday.
In a slightly tortured comparison, Pence said at the ceremony: “While the hearts of every American are with our fellow citizens in the path of a massive storm, today we remember how the gathering storm of the 20th century broke into warfare and invasion followed by the unspeakable hardship and heroism shown by the Polish people.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda said it was difficult to even imagine now that “cataclysm of history … which brought the most disastrous consequences in the history of mankind.”
Duda scolded Europe for not standing up to Adolf Hitler sooner, saying, “Perhaps the Second World War would not have broken out in the first place if the states in the west had put up a decisive resistance against … the imperial ambitions of Hitler.”
The Polish president also criticized Western leaders who have been soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin after Moscow’s aggression in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
“We are still faced, even in Europe, with the return of imperialist tendencies. … Closing one’s eyes is not a recipe for peace,” he said. “It is a simple way … to give permission for further attacks.”
Putin was not invited to the events.
Trump clashed with world leaders at the G-7 summit last week as he battled to have Russia reinstated to the association. The country was ousted after Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson argued that Russia had grown even more anti-democratic since then, CNN reported, and Russia was not readmitted to the group.
Pence met Sunday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pledge U.S. support for the nation.
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